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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Arifa Akbar

One Who Wants to Cross review – nail-biting dread in a story of desperate migrants

Ola Teniola and Wisdom Iheoma in One Who Wants to Cross.
Mesmerising performances … Ola Teniola and Wisdom Iheoma in One Who Wants to Cross. Photograph: Ali Wright

Two men stand at opposite ends of the stage. One wants to cross the waters, represented by a mirrored shard on the floor. The other bars his way, demanding money or sounding doubtful warnings of the journey’s danger.

Marc-Emmanuel Soriano’s play, translated from French by Amanda Gann, is a stripped-down, devastating drama about migrant lives hanging in limbo. Directed by Alice Hamilton and produced by the Clarisse Makundul company, it is full of poetry and nail-biting dread.

No country is specified in the play. The refugees stay nameless with an identity that shifts from one minute to the next, like the waters on this godforsaken beach. We learn only of their desperate need to escape a volatile land and their dream of arriving at a safer one, just visible on the horizon.

The water in between could be the Channel or the ancient river Styx. Death certainly fills its waves and its vivid description comes with petrifying pauses, forcing a reflection on just what the journey entails for those seeking harbour.

Ola Teniola and Wisdom Iheoma in One Who Wants to Cross.
Ola Teniola and Wisdom Iheoma in One Who Wants to Cross. Photograph: Ali Wright

There is an incantatory quality to the script that becomes hypnotic, its power matched by mesmerising performances. Wisdom Iheoma is, alternately, the narrator and the would-be voyager. The figures he plays stay vague – they could be any of us. Ola Teniola is the gatekeeper who stops him, the fisherman who warns against it and the ferryman who packs in too many people on his boat.

Largely driven by narration, with some scenes enacted in dialogue, it becomes a highly effective form of oral storytelling. The actors barely move at times; each movement, when it comes, is well spent.

Sarah Beaton’s set design works with the lighting by Jamie Platt and sound by Daniel Balfour to convey a sense of risk and action. The actors remain stock still as we hear the sound of a body lurching into the water, and feel the shock of darkness after a dinghy capsizes.

The script cleverly inverts the classic narrative of heroic endeavour: this migrant is a desperate adventurer who knows that “before becoming a hero he will have to survive as a hunted creature”. In just over 60 minutes, it feels as epic and mythic as Greek tragedy.

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